On Goldstein’s Novels of Ideas: Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince

This piece continues a series of reviews highlighting philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s list of the best “novels of ideas”. Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince was the fourth entry on her list.

Reviewed in this essay: The Black Prince, Iris Murdoch. Penguin Classics, 2003 (Originally published: 1973)

The Black Prince is the story of Bradley Pearson, a 58-year-old retired Inspector of Taxes and author. The first half of the novel outlines Pearson’s attempts to escape to the countryside to work on his would-be great novel. Each time he tries to leave, the doorbell rings and his work is delayed. On the third attempt, Pearson’s best friend and rival Arnold Baffin’s 20-year-old daughter rings. Pearson falls in love and abandons his desire to leave London and his novel. Eros defeats art and the comic part of the novel ends; tragedy predictably follows.

The Black Prince is structured as Pearson’s apologia to his editor and friend P.A. Loxias. This allows Murdoch to address an audience directly, pausing for philosophical musings, without engaging in the post-modern trick of acknowledging the reader. Loxias and Pearson both write forewords to the main text. Pearson and four other characters offer competing postscripts. Two deny Loxias’s existence. This fulfills early premonitions about Pearson’s unreliability as a narrator. The first significant piece of dialogue shifts “I may have just killed my wife” to “I may have just killed Rachel” in the first twenty pages. Similar inconsistencies arise throughout.

Pearson (if not Murdoch) does an able job of warning against trivial interpretations of the story. Despite the complicated familial relationships in the novel, his dismissal of Freudian interpretations of Hamlet as beside the point even if true also applies here. Elsewhere, he directly combats the notion that this is a story of a would-be artist who confuses a desire for an individual for a desire to create. One wonders if this novel can also be distinguished from stories of individuals who confuse desire for the transcendent with desire for an individual (i.e. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice).

The novel can be read as an engagement with Greek philosophy’s greats. Murdoch was a Plato scholar and Goldstein suggests the text can be understood as a reflection on Plato’s works on eros and art. One should also keep Aristotle in mind when reading Murdoch. Part of Murdoch’s continuing influence stems from her continuation of the Aristotelian engagement of the moral imagination. Pearson’s self-analysis raises the question of moral refinement. It is worth probing whether reading Murdoch can hone one’s moral intuitions.

Baffin’s novels are criticized for being in a “rozy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea.” Pearson and Baffin’s arguments on art can approximate such caricatures, but Murdoch wisely keeps them short. Instead, Murdoch’s narrative and, in particular, her descriptions move both aesthetical please and help engage the moral imagination. In recognizing the influence of emotions on actions, Murdoch parts from Plato; readers’ attempts to empathize inflame their moral imagination. Murdoch makes empathy easy by providing excellent phenomenological descriptions of everything from falling in love with someone you have known from a long time to vomiting (two related phenomena in the novel and life).